WEST ORANGE, NJ — A year after the pandemic forced the West Orange High School marching band to scrap its 2020 show in favor of something easier to perform with less time to rehearse, the Mountaineers are back in uniform and on the field, debuting their 2021 show during a season that looks much closer to pre–COVID-19 times than last year. Halftime at the first home football games of the year saw the band perform “Super!” featuring the music of DC and Marvel comics, including Wonder Woman, Black Panther, Superman and Batman.
“We wanted to go in a lighter direction,” Director Lewis Kelly said in a phone interview with the West Orange Chronicle on Oct. 1. “We thought it would be easier for them to connect to. They’re familiar with most, if not all, of the music.”
WOHS students weren’t in school in person last fall, so band and color guard members weren’t seeing one another outside of a few hours of practice time each week. There was no competing or traveling to away football games and none of the normal gathering that came along with a regular marching band season. The musicians are happy to be back.
“It felt like a big blur,” senior drum major Ayush Narain said in a phone interview with the Chronicle on Oct. 1 about the 2020 season. “It happened, but I don’t feel like it happened. This year it’s more like what I signed up for.”
He’s not the only one who feels that way. It seems like the mood of the band as a whole has improved.
“What did change was the enthusiasm,” Narain said. “Last year I could tell that not everyone was on board, and were thinking, ‘What are we doing this for?’ Now, they’re ready.”
The WOHS band typically has two drum majors, a junior and a senior. The junior drum major becomes the senior drum major a year later, so this is Narain’s second year in the role. Shane Donagher is the junior drum major.
“People were nervous,” Donagher said about the band’s first performance in front of a crowd in two years. “But you can see the enthusiasm. I’ve loved seeing that. Half the band is new members, so we’re taking the time to teach them and get back on track.”
There are still precautions being taken — masks and bell covers are used during indoor rehearsals, and more buses are needed to drive to competitions and away games, to allow for social distancing between students. Backup plans are always in place.
“We want to have the most positive experience possible,” Kelly said. “We know the whole thing could get shut down tomorrow. A lot of people are new to this, and that’s not a bad thing. It brings a different energy that can be fun.”
At their first competition since 2019 at Roxbury High School, WOHS placed first in its group and won the music and effect categories in its group. It also won Overall Grand Champion and the overall music and effect categories. The season is off to a strong start. After a year of simpler, more manageable music and drill, Narain said bands they’ve watched compete are coming back in full force.
“We were deprived of it this last year,” he said. “Every band is coming back better. We’re fully into the season that we would have had last year.”
WOHS’ own home festival is coming up. On Oct. 9, 19 bands from around North Jersey will be at Suriano Stadium to compete. The Mountaineers will perform in exhibition at the end; it’s the biggest show West Orange has ever put on.
“There wasn’t any competing in New Jersey last year,” Kelly said. “You didn’t get that energy, and you do this to perform for other people. The competition crowds are often a more appreciative audience. It’s a whole different ball game.”
Information about and tickets to the WOHS festival can be found at www.wohsmusic.org/invitational.
The most exciting part of a new, normal season, though, is the fact that there is a season at all.
“There’s a lot of people around now,” Donagher said. “The thing I was looking forward to the most was seeing people again. Last year we had been in lockdown for six months, but we weren’t in class or having lunch together yet. The best thing about it is a family I can come back to every day.”
Photos Courtesy of WOSD and Kerry E. Porter